Romans 16

In a previous post, I wrote about the easy-to-miss names mentioned in Paul’s New Testament letters. But I can’t leave this topic without highlighting the one letter that has more unknowns per square inch of ink. It’s Romans, where Paul essentially takes all of chapter 16 to name names in the family.

Now, it would be easy to skim through Romans 16. There is so much in the first 15 chapters, where verse after verse is full of insight, wisdom, and gospel. But the final chapter of Romans isn’t just a conclusion – it’s a picture of what the gospel looks like, lived out. Romans 16 puts names and faces, flesh and blood to what Paul has been writing about in this letter. If the gospel is true, THIS is what it looks like. This is WHO it looks like.

Paul starts by commending Phoebe. This is her only mention in the NT (making her what I call a “one-hit wonder”). Even so, there is so much we learn about her in just two short verses. She’s definitely a Gentile, for her name comes from a description given to the goddess, Artemis. She’s a deacon, so she has a leadership role in the church in Cenchreae. And she is the carry-er of this letter, which means Paul entrusts to her, not simply the delivery of the letter – but likely its reading, as well.

In other words, it looks like Phoebe was the first person to read, and proclaim, the message of the most important theological treatise ever written.

How about Andronicus & Junia, likely a husband-wife team? Paul calls them apostles – of the “little a” version, I would say – missionaries, emissaries, ambassadors for the gospel.

Then there’s verse 13, where Paul writes: Greet Rufus the chosen in the Lord – and his mother, and mine. Paul mentions a woman, not naming her, because apparently he sees no need. To Paul – she’s simply, “Mom.” What do you think she must have done, what must she have meant to Paul – for him to think of her as his mother?

Paul, take your extra tunic. There’s a chill wind tonight.

Here, take this little lunch I made for your journey.

Make sure to get your rest, dear. You work too hard.

And please, please try not to get thrown into prison again. You know how I worry.

There are very few people in a person’s life who are known, not primarily by name, but by title; by relationship. And this unnamed, unknown, never-talked-about woman in Romans 16.13 is one of those for Paul. For apparently when Paul talked about her – when Paul talked to her – he simply said, Mom.

One more we should mention: Tertius. All we know about him is what we read in Romans 16.22: I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.

What kind of name is Tertius? Well, it’s not really a name – it’s a number, for his name means “Third.” Now, who would name their kid “Three”? Some not-very-creative parents, perhaps? Ok, we’ve had one kid; over there is #2. So I guess that makes you Three – Tertius it is.

No. It’s not that simple – or funny. Instead, the writer & speaker Andy Crouch points out that this is the kind of name that owners would use with their slaves. As property, they didn’t even warrant a real name – just a number.

And yet, this “Number 3” finds a place in the family of God. This “Third Slave” becomes the first person Paul turns to when he is looking for a brother he can trust to pen the words of the most important theological letter ever written.

Think about it this way. Paul speaks his letter to a Gentile slave, and then entrusts that same letter to a Gentile woman named after a pagan god —- and through Tertius’s pen and Phoebe’s sharing, Paul’s magnum opus reaches the most important city in the ancient world. And that letter would change their world, and ours – forever.

Because, in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female – there is neither rich nor poor, black or white or brown, native-born or immigrant, old or middle age or young – for in Christ, for IN CHRIST – we are all one.

In fact, who else can do this, but Jesus? Who else but Jesus can bring us together, with all our differences? Who else but Jesus can heal our brokenness? Who else but Jesus can fill us with the grace and the courage to be the people he calls us to be – to become a family where everyone has a place?

One-Hit Wonders

This summer, when churches in my area resumed having in-person services, I visited a small congregation where my friend is the pastor. He was finishing a series on Ephesians, and he read some of Paul’s final words as he wrapped up the letter: In order that you know how I am – what I’m doing – Tychicus the beloved brother and faithful servant in the Lord – he’ll make sure you know everything. I’ve sent him to you for this reason, so that you might know about us, and your hearts might be encouraged (Ephesians 6.21-22).

After he read this scripture, it got me thinking: I’ve heard the name Tychicus, but I don’t really know anything about this guy. So, confession: as my friend continued to preach, I listened, but I also searched “Tychicus” on my Bible app. Turns out,  he’s mentioned 4 other times in the NT.

In Acts 20, he’s listed with a bunch of Paul’s traveling companions. In 2 Timothy 4.12, we have another reference to Paul sending him to Ephesus. In Colossians 4.7, we read basically the same description of him that we see in Ephesians – pretty much word-for-word. In Titus 3.12, Paul is considering sending Tychicus to Crete. Even though we know very little about him, it appears that Tychicus was one of Paul’s most trusted emissaries; if someone needed to go and share with a congregation in need, Tychicus was one of Paul’s first choices.

This got me to thinking how the Bible is full of plenty of names we know, and rightly so. Names that readily come to mind, like Ruth, Abraham, David, Isaiah, Esther, Elijah, Moses. Peter, James, & John. Timothy and Titus. Or pick your favorite Mary.

Each name we know. Each one has a story to tell. But what about the Tychicuses of the Bible? (Or would that be Tychici?) What about them? What stories do they have?

I think it matters, because they matter. If we believe that every person has value – then every name counts, right? Every person – EVERY person – has a name, a place, and a story.

Like Onesimus, for example – the slave who’s at the center of the Letter to Philemon. His name means Useful – likely named that way so that, as a slave, he would live up to that name.

In Colossians 4.9, we read that, along with Tychicus, Paul has sent Onesimus to the Colossian church. He’s one of yours, Paul says. And Paul calls him “the faithful and beloved brother.”

Don’t miss this. A slave, being sent back to his home city, but now his enslaved status is no longer his primary identity. His “usefulness” has nothing to do with worldly status; instead, Paul says, he’s our brother, loved and faithful to our God. In fact, in verse 10 of Philemon, Paul calls him “my child” – and literally says, I birthed him while I was in prison.

But Paul isn’t finished. There are more people he wants to mention. And so, as he is wrapping up Colossians, he says in 4.10: Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark, the cousin of Barnabas – you’re received instruction about him. If he comes to you, receive him.

Not only was Aristarchus a prisoner with Paul, Acts 27 tells us that he had been on the ship Paul took to Rome as a prisoner – and so, would have been shipwrecked with him. We don’t even know this guy; but can you imagine how important he was to Paul? Could Paul have been Paul without this guy we know nothing about?

And then there’s Mark. He’s the guy whose name is behind one of our 4 gospels. He’s also the one who came between Paul and Barnabas. In Acts 15, as the two are about to set out on a missionary trip, Barny wants to take Mark, but Paul remembers that Mark left them on a previous trip. Paul says no. Barny says yes. Paul says No Way. Barny says Yes way. And then they part ways – over Mark.

But here we are, in Colossians 4.10, and who is Paul speaking up for? It’s Mark. Somehow, the two came back together. Maybe there were tears of confession, owning up to impatience on the one hand, and immaturity on the other. Surely there was a heart-to-heart – with forgiveness offered, and received. Something clearly happened, for here Paul is, standing with Mark. Together, again.

How about verse 15? Paul greets Nympha – and the church that meets at her house. This is the only mention of Nympha in scripture; she’s what we might call a biblical “one-hit wonder.” Even so, she’s an important part of the church, and Paul doesn’t want to overlook her. For when the NT talks about those who have church at their home, it’s usually not simply referring to the hostess. It’s a reference to one who leads and shepherds those who gather there. And Nympha is among them.

So, here in Colossians 4, in just a few verses, we get just a few names from Paul. We’d love to know more. But what we do know, speaks volumes.

If a slave and a woman and a Gentile can be so vitally important to the mission of a man who was a Pharisee, zealous for the law – if these people are life and breath to Paul – then we should be sure not to miss the message here. And the relationships Paul has formed with these folk is simply a living-out of what he describes in Galatians 3.26-28: For we are ALL sons (and daughters) of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. For whoever has been baptized into Christ, has put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is not man and woman. For ALL of YOU are One in Christ Jesus.

That’s the message we need to live as the Church. This is who we are. This is who we are becoming. And every time Paul points to some unknown Gentile, or woman, or slave – and says, Here is a brother or sister – he is pointing to the new family God has made through Jesus; a family that includes each person who wears his name.

And every time Paul does that, he is breaking new ground – where the Church is forming a new culture, one where we all are one – where everyone has a seat at the table – because at the center of that table is the cross. And seated at the Head of that table is the resurrected Jesus, whose resurrection defeats our disunity, our discord – forming a brand-new, resurrected family. A family for all of us – for those who are well-connected, and those un-connected. For those with status, and those with no status. For those who feel wanted, and those who don’t.

And isn’t that exactly what our worlds need today?

Maybe you’ve heard of the ancient Roman practice of “infant exposure” – where an unwanted newborn would be left on a trash heap or other abandoned place – to die or be gathered up by someone. Often, those who came by and “saved babies from dying” did so in order to raise the child for sale into slavery. NT historian Larry Hurtado says that by one estimate, the Roman empire needed 500,000 new slaves each year – of which 150,000 would have come from “discarded” babies.

Hurtado points to a letter from around the time of Jesus’ birth. It’s from a man named Hilarion, who was likely a soldier in the Roman army. In 1 BC, he writes to his wife, Alis. She is expecting, and Hilarion writes to her, “If it is a boy, let it be; if it is a girl, cast it out.”  Hurtado notes that this was a common Roman practice – that basically, a newborn didn’t become a part of the family until it was accepted into the family.

Folk in the Roman world could pick and choose who belonged. How counter-cultural it must have been, then, to have this movement come along, and say: Everyone has a place. God chooses to welcome all who need a family.

ALL are welcome, for all of us have equal need of the grace and redemption from our Father that comes through our Brother Jesus. We don’t open our arms to people because they are useful to us or have the right status –  or because they look like us, or agree with us. The Spirit invites into the family all who recognize our desperate need for Jesus – folk like slaves, who became brothers. Women, who became leaders. And Jews & Gentiles, who sat down at the same table, as one. It’s the original plan for the Church, and it still applies today.

Conversations vs. Controversies

In my previous post, I wrote about the Canon with the Canon. If you haven’t read that post, read it before you jump into this one.

Ok, so you’ve read it, right? Cuz I’m going to move forward with that assumption. So, let’s go.

Just a few minutes ago, I read an article that looked at how the Christian Church, the Stone-Campbell tradition I am a part of, handles questions of what matters most. And the author made the point that, in the Church, we often handle difficult issues with one of two extremes: 1) we avoid conversation, or 2) we treat what should be conversations as controversies. In other words, we take what is non-essential, and we make it essential. And we then refuse to talk about it, or we choose to fight about it.

All of this reflects our choice of a Canon within the Canon. And if my CwtC is different than your CwtC, then we are likely to find ourselves in serious disagreement — and maybe even disunity.

One blog post won’t solve what 2000 years hasn’t been able to overcome. In fact, if the Church is any indication, our tendency is to move, not toward unity, but away from it. Tragic, yes. Inevitable, no. But reality nonetheless.

But I can’t help but wonder: what if we truly read all of scripture through a common lens? What if we refused to let non-essentials divide us — even when they infringe upon tightly-held traditions?

In the past week, I’ve seen this in at least three ways.

First: I preached at a church this past Sunday that has two different services. The first included only hymns, accompanied only by a keyboard, and led by a male minister. The second included only choruses, where the loudest instrument was definitely the electric guitar, and where the service was led by a lay female member of the church. After the 2nd service, the minister of that church told me that there’s an older guy who has been attending the louder and more contemporary service. It’s not my style, the man says, but he does it to worship with someone who does attend that service. In other words, whether he realizes it or not, he is choosing Ephesians 4.1-6 as a part of his CwtC. (By the way: In this post, I’m going to reference a number of scriptures. I’m not going to take the time to link each one. I figure you can do that for passages you don’t know. Go to or Or, you could go old school and pull out your Bible.)

Second example: a couple of days ago, I had lunch with 3 ministers. I have known two of them for years, and they are from the same church tradition as I am. The third I barely know, and is a Baptist. These 3 guys meet together every Tuesday for lunch, and then to work on their Sunday messages. As we talked, one of the Christian Church guys joked that his Baptist friend has to filter all of their studying through his Calvinist filter. That’s ok, he went on to describe. I do the same thing in reverse when it comes from him. All of this was shared with humor and the collegiality that comes from guys who, regardless of their views on TULIP, recognize that their view on the Rose of Sharon matters more. So, while they may have differing interpretations of John 6.44, all 3 of them stand firmly on John 14.6.

Third example: last night I was working for a friend who has a floor-demolition business. We were working overnight at a Target, and after we finished the job, we headed to a Waffle House for a 1:30am snack. On the way, one of the guys in the truck asked: Where did Cain get his wife? In my answer, I tried to focus on the essentials: The point of the Adam & Eve story, along with the Cain & Abel, isn’t to help us identify Mrs. Cain. Instead, the essential elements of those stories are that Adam & Eve didn’t love and obey God, and Cain didn’t take care of his brother — and we have been having the same problem ever since. Simply put, the point of Adam & Eve and their children is to describe the human condition: our fractured relationship with God, and with each other.

Which makes Matthew 22.34-40 such an essential passage. When Jesus is asked what the most important commandment is, he answers by pointing us to a response that is the opposite of, and undoes, the sin of the first family. And this tells me that Matthew 22.34-40 is a CwtC. In fact, isn’t that what Jesus is doing? Isn’t he answering the question by giving his own CwtC?

Why can’t we stand firmly where Jesus stood? Why can’t we all agree that Matthew 22.34-40 is a CwtC. And for that matter, Romans 3.23-24. And 1 Corinthians 15.3-4. And Galatians 3.28. And Philippians 2.12-13. And Colossians 3.17. And Hebrews 4.14-16. And 1 John 4.7.

And these CwtCs are prefigured, just as Jesus said, in Leviticus 19.18. At the same time, He remembers what He made us from (Psalm 103.14). But even so, our calling is to rise above our “dustiness” — as Micah 6.8 so clearly calls us to do.

I have no doubt that, until Jesus returns, the Church will have controversies where conversations should instead be had. I also understand that deciding what is essential is not so simple, and may never be so. But perhaps a good start can be had if we choose to plant our flag on essential passages — ones that point us with simple clarity to God’s love for us, and our responding love for God, and for every single person in our lives.